William & Mary

Political Activist Wang Dan Visits Campus


Wang Dan, a principal student leader of the 1989 democracy movement in Beijing, came to campus on October 7th to speak with students. The event drew in a standing room only crowd, packed with students eager to hear his lecture: “The Future of Chinese Democracy 30 Years After Tiananmen.” Professor Sophia Hart, who organized the event, said: “This was a tremendous opportunity for William & Mary students to meet a maker of history as well as a student of history. I was delighted to see such a strong student turnout and robust series of provocative questions from the audience.  How else can we learn without exposure to people with diverse experiences and opinions?” 

 Wang has a long history of activism. A history student at Peking University in the 1980s, Wang became involved in pro-democracy demonstrations from their naissance. He lived what is now taught in history books at the Tiananmen Massacres. When the Chinese government cracked down on these protests, Wang Dan became the No. 1 most wanted person and was quickly arrested. Wang was sentenced to four years in the infamous Quincheng Prison, a maximum-security facility used to house many political criminals.  

After being released from Quincheng in 1993, Wang continued his resistance movement. The Chinese government arrested him again two years later, sentencing him to 11 years in prison. Under international pressures, the government released Wang and exiled him to the US, where he has been active since. 

Wang has continued his advocacy for democracy in China. Most recently, Wang started Dialogue China, a think tank dedicated to creating dialogue between activists in China, learning how to best support democratization, and conducting grassroot level research. The think tank is located in Washington, DC and is always creating new content to help others understand the complexities of Chinese government. 

Prof Hart also remarked the reaction many students had to the talk: 

Chinese students studying at William & Mary, many of whom have never heard about the Tiananmen Square massacre before, assertively quizzed Wang about the credibility of his information.  Some expressed doubt that students had been killed and challenged the claim that the demonstrations were peaceful while others openly scoffed at his academic credentials. I am afraid you have some bad information, was his bland reply to some of the more pointed questions,” she said. 

Wang truly lives the values he fought for back in the 1980s. In the US, he is productive with his time, earning two degrees from Harvard and being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on three occasions. With these honors and the success of his endeavors, Wang stays humble.  When asked about his goals, he responded, if I can reach even 10 people in one year, I am satisfied.   

More information about Wang Dan’s accomplishments and Dialogue China can be found on their website.